Saturday, July 20, 2013


On a quota system begging  reform
M. Serajul Islam

Certain things are possible only in Bangladesh like the quota system in our civil bureaucracy that came to public knowledge only after affected young men and women – our projonmo- came together at Shahabag and flagged an abused system for the government and the nation. Unlike the projonmo who had gathered at Shahabag over Qader Mollah that was welcomed and indulged by the government, this projonmo was forced out of Shahabag by the police.  The “Shahabag Merit Chattar” nevertheless succeeded in shocking the nation by exposing that the government follows a recruitment policy for the civil bureaucracy where 56% is recruited on quota basis and 44% on merit!  Had the Public Service Commission (PSC) not applied this quota allocation in the preliminary examination of 100 marks for the first time in the 34th BCS Examination, the irrationality in the existing quota system in our civil bureaucracy would have remained outside the attention of the nation.

The irrationality of the quota system may be better understood with a little explanation. In the existing quota system for recruitment through the Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) examinations, a walloping 30% of available posts are reserved for sons/daughters of freedom fighters, 10% for women and 14% for districts/tribal, etc leaving 44% for the general candidates. Unfortunately, the general candidates constitute the overwhelming majority of those who take the BCS examinations. Thus, the vast majority of the candidates face extremely intense competition because they have lesser number of posts to fight for while those who have the benefit of the quota have very little competition because their numbers are far less but they have more posts reserved for them. The quota candidates can also avail posts from the 44% open for the overwhelming majority of the candidates.

If we look a little deeper into this unbelievable quota system, the anger and frustration of those who expressed it at Shahabag will be explicit. Take for instance the 30% is reserved for the sons/daughters of the freedom fighters. This benefit goes to the small number of individuals who parents were certified as freedom fighters. There is genuine concern in the minds of many people that the benefit of the liberation war in which the people of Bangladesh participated as a nation and not as members of a political party went to only a few who were connected with the Awami League or supporters of the party. In fact, after the AL came to power in 1996-2001, Sheikh Hasina had termed, albeit sarcastically, the certified freedom fighters recruited in government service in 1973 as “Tofael Bahini” that underscored that they were overwhelmingly the supporters of the Awami League.

If candidates taking a civil service examination  40 plus years after that liberation war was fought and won, find that 30% of the jobs in a BCS examination are not theirs to compete and reserved for the small number of sons and daughters of the certified freedom fighters, then their frustration and anger can only draw the support and sympathy of the nation. The 10% quota for women has better explanation to be a part of the quota system on numbers alone as women constitute half the population. In a country like Bangladesh, the women quota makes sense also because women are generally considered to be disadvantaged. Nevertheless, as far the women who take the BCS examination are concerned; they come from more or less the same socio-economic background as their male competitors. Very few of the women who take the BCS examination come from disadvantaged background as women in the national context. As for the remaining 14% under district quota/tribal people, there may have been some reason to introduce the district element at the beginning. But today, candidates can so easily change their district to take advantage of the district quota that it should be withdrawn because of the extent to which it has been abused. Of the entire quota system, only the negligible percentage reserved for tribal people really makes sense.

The jobs on offer through the BCS are those that eventually make those who get it, Secretaries to the Government, Ambassadors, etc, jobs that bring the highest respect in society.  The foundation of the country’s civil bureaucracy, an institution upon which the country’s development and its future depends, rests on those who hold these jobs because they are  the leaders of the civil bureaucracy. Such an institution should be based for the country’s sake, by simple logic and reason, on merit alone or to the largest extent possible. To have reduced the merit context of such an important institution in nation building to such a minor component does not make any sense at all. It has happened because over the years, successive governments, instead of dealing with the absurd expansion of the quota system , indulged with it and helped add more to it ultimate pushing it to its present status where merit has been made secondary to quota. Successive governments have used the quota system for reasons of politics as for instance the decision to provide quota benefit to sons and daughters of freedom fighters.

These deficiencies in the quota system would have remained un-notice by the nation had the PSC not gone ahead and applied this quota system on the 100 marks preliminary examination for the 34th BCS examination. By the application, only little over 12,000 candidates qualified and over 2 lacs failed.  Those who failed were almost all outside the lucky “quota candidates”. Like pouring salt to the injury, thousands of candidates who failed had substantially more marks than many thousands who passed. The logical consequence of the PSC’s absurd decision was the outpouring of anger by the thousands of frustrated candidates who chose the Shahabag Chattar to vent their frustrations.  Their gathering drew national attention and sympathy but not the government’s.  After a day or two of indulgence, the police, using the excuse of violence by the Shahbag Merit Chattar, dispersed them by force. Hundreds of these protesters have now cases in court filed against them after the agitation was given a political twist by the government.

Nevertheless, the Shahabag merit protesters did not fail to highlight for the government and the nation the injustice and anomalies in the quota system that has gone off the rails. The present government also saw the political fallout for here is a different “projonmo” whose cause has drawn national attention and support. The Shahbag merit youth were also able to highlight that merit and majority interest are both being sacrificed to give advantages to a few. What the Shahabag merit chattar did not explain to the nation is that the quality of candidates recruited under the quota system is poor and is responsible for sliding quality of the civil bureaucracy of Bangladesh.

At the time of filing this article, the PSC has reviewed the preliminary examination of the 34th BCS examination.  It withdrew the quota system and over 46,000 candidates were declared to have passed. Nevertheless, for the future of the country, the government must now examine the validity of the quota in the civil bureaucracy for the youth that had gathered in Shahabag have unequivocally flagged for the government and the nation the urgent need for it. The system has been allowed to spread unchecked for too long and has affected the civil bureaucracy adversely. The demand has resonated in all public universities and without reform, anger and frustration among the youth over the quota system will get stronger. Nevertheless it cannot be abolished immediately. However, the government must start reviewing the quota system without delay by giving more percentage to merit but at the same time set a time frame for ending it altogether.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.


Dr. Yunus finally decides to fight

The Holiday, July 18th., 2013
M. Serajul Islam

It is encouraging for the nation that Noble Laureate Dr. Mohammad Yunus is finally standing up for himself and the Grameen Bank. He allowed himself to be badgered/humiliated/belittled far too long by his adversaries. He watched silently the institution he built from scratch into one recognized worldwide that brought it and him the Noble Prize and the country great pride and the rare opportunity to revamp its very poor international image being demolished systematically. It has been the latest insensitive news that the Government is going to implement the decision of the Commission on Grameen Bank to divide the world famous institution into 19 parts to place it under the government’s control that has ended the Noble Lauareate's patience.

In the short time after the Government made its intention public, Dr. Yunus has shown the intention to take the fight to those who for reasons they alone can explain have been belittling and humiliating him and his achievements when some of the greatest leaders of our time of the likes of Nelson Mandela, President Barak Obama and others have expressed their support for him and the Grameen Bank as his friends and admirers. The Grameen Bank he created is today being replicated around the world for poverty alleviation.  He is one of seven individuals who have won three of the greatest awards in current times, namely the Noble Peace Prize, the US Predident's Gold Medal and the Congressional Medal of Honour. These are not all his international achievements; there are far too many to easily make him the most honoured personality in the current international arena. His current preoccupation with Social Business has earned him even more recognition and many think that another Nobel Prize, this time in Economics, may be waiting for him.

With the Noble Laureate deciding enough is enough and vowing that he would not allow the Government to dismantle the Grameen Bank, there is now a bee line of politicians/ political parties who have suddenly felt the need to show that they are no longer afraid to be seen in public with him to support his cause and sympathise in his predicament. Perhaps this is so because the Noble Laureate has realized belatedly that he needs to stand for himself and the Grameen Bank in order to save his institution and his name, honour and dignity. The Finance Minister, no doubt surprised to find Dr. Yunus suddenly showing the intent to fight and no longer willing to play the role of the sparring partner for the Government, expressed both contempt and sarcasm when he said he knew too well all the time that the Noble Laureate is a "politician", like being a politician is a bad quality that Dr. Yunus has been hiding forgetting that he too has turned into a politician after a lifetime as a bureaucrat.

Dr. Yunus should take no offense in what the Finance Minister has said. In fact, he should thank the Minister for reminding him that he is a politician for that may be the way out of his current strange predicament of being honoured around the world yet being humiliated in his own country by his own government.  Nevertheless, the FM's comment about Dr. Yunus was surely not complimentary. Perhaps like the Finance Minister, the Noble Laureate had also been having negative impression of a politician. The FM’s sarcastic comment should however encourage Dr. Yunus to look into whether being a politician is a bad thing after all. If he does, he will find that over two millenniums ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had said unequivocally that "man is by nature a political animal." Many brilliant minds after the great philosopher have likewise upheld the indispensability   of politics for civilized existence.

These philosophers have stressed that it is crucial for human societies to channel this natural instinct present in all humans for good of all. Some societies have succeeded in doing this by ensuring that those upon whom the task of channeling political instincts has been given – the politicians- are those who can rise over their personal needs and interests to serve the common good. Others have failed in organizing the natural political instinct because the politicians upon whom the task has been given have used the trust to serve their own personal interests and needs. It is the latter societies that have given politics and politicians the bad name.

Nevertheless, politics is the only way for any society/country to move to a higher level through conflict resolution and decision making for common good. The objective for any society/country is thus to organize its politics for common good by ensuring that people with intent of serving the common good go into politics and become politicians. From this perspective, Bangladesh is struggling because its politics is not organized for the common good and most of those who have entered politics are not interested or bothered to work for the common good notwithstanding what they publicly profess all the time. When the Finance Minister was calling Dr. Yunus a politician, he was no doubt saying that the Noble Laureate is like the politician in Bangladesh, one interested in his own good while talking publicly of being interested in the common good, the qualities present in a hypocrite. The Prime Minister in her most recent comments about the NB has said exactly what the FM alluded in his comment; she has called Dr. Yunus “selfish” together with a host of other attributes that except the inner circles of the power establishment of Bangladesh, very few outside believe.

When history reflects on the period we are now passing, we will have to answer as a nation what made us belittle such a great man in his country of birth! Many great individuals have won the Noble Peace Prize but when one considers the history of all Noble Peace Laureates, Dr. Yunus stands out in a class by himself. Yet, we have suggested that a Noble Peace Prize can be won simply by being in the right company, sipping white wine and cheese to humiliate him! He has most recently been charged of wining the Noble Prize with the help of the Clinton Foundation that lobbied for him with the Noble Peace Prize Committee with funds provided by Telenor!!  He has also been accused by his own government of corruption while running an institution that has been also awarded the Noble Prize with him without the charge being proved. In fact, a commission set by the Government itself found the charge’s untenable but that did not deter the government from hounding and pursuing him.

In choosing to belittle the Noble Laureate, the government has missed literally a God given instrument to further its foreign policy goals in which are embedded its own future and that of the country. Dr. Yunus could have opened Bangladesh’s doors to the powerful countries/institutions and individuals and with that the opportunity to further the country’s interests. It is not just that the government missed out on this opportunity; it has by the way it treated the Noble Laureate in the face of requests from these quarters for a fair treatment for him, annoyed and upset them by turning down the requests with disdain. Therefore, when this government needed these governments/institutions/individuals for assisting it for Bangladesh’s interests, they have declined.

The withdrawal of GSP by USA is a case in point. It has been withdrawn for problems of the RMG sector where the USA does not provide GSP facilities while the sectors from which it has withdrawn have no problems to warrant the withdrawal. Likewise, the World Bank would have very well found ways to accommodate Bangladesh on the Padma bridge loan had the government not upset those who have overriding powers over the WB   over Dr. Yunus. The way the government handled Dr. Yunus has not just hampered Bangladesh’s national interests; it has harmed the ruling party’s political fortunes in the country. The latest goofing over the Chinese funding for the Padma Bridge between the Finance Minister and the Communications Minister should remind the ruling party what a mess it has made over one of its major electoral commitments when the time to answer for it is staring at  it with the next elections just round the corner.

The above notwithstanding, the importance of Dr. Mohammad Yunus to Bangladesh has not diminished. In fact, it has enhanced for it has now been established that had the government not messed with him, its own fortune and that of the country would have been much better. Looking into the future, a dark cloud of uncertainty seems to be ahead for the country because its politics is going up the wrong path and politicians are becoming more confrontational. At this critical time, the country is yearning for help for if this confrontational politics is not avoided; the country would slide into disaster. It is in this context that Dr. Yunus should consider the FM’s comment about being a politician. It is also in this context that he should consider the bee line of politicians and political parties now coming to his doors. He should also consider that the country today sees in him an answer to their prayers to come into politics and straighten a lot of the imperfections in it.

In reflecting on his future, Dr. Yunus should consider that his future and the country’s are coming to a convergence as it had done once before when the army officers had gone to him to take charge of the last caretaker government. Had he not declined that offer, perhaps the country’s future would have taken a much better course than it has. With another opportunity at his door, he should now seriously consider entering politics to be a sobering and positive influence for politics and politicians. He does not have to join any of the political parties. He does not have to form a political party either. As he has said himself, he has 8.4 million GB subscribers and 20,000 workers who can be his political cadre not for assuming political power but to remind the politicians that there is a third force under his leadership who are unwilling to let politicians mess up the lives of the people for their own interests.

Dr. Yunus should also consider that the large civil society so far leaderless is also yearning for a sense of direction. If he enters politics and decides to give leadership to the civil society, he could give the mainstream political parties a fight so that in future they just cannot do as they please. Our recent experiences have shown that the two mainstream parties – the AL and the BNP- are not going anywhere but that they are capable of doing a lot of harm to the country through failure in governance. A strong unified civil society that we do not have at the moment  that he could help build could be a sobering influence upon the political parties to perform and also an insurance against the country going to the hands of the extra constitutional forces, the army.

The country has followed Dr. Yunus’ recent intent to fight his predicament positively and with a lot of hope and expectations. He should not disappoint the country a second time. Politics is a noble preoccupation. He should keep what Aristotle and other great philosophers have said about politics in perspective and use his political instincts to fight for himself, his Grameen Bank and the country in the same spirit he has fought for 8.4 million GB subscribers in the country to bring them out of poverty and given them a future that has made him one of the most talked about and respected individuals worldwide.  Dr. Yunus must realize that his only way to fight and save the GB lies in politics and that by entering politics; he can also do the country and its politics a great favour.

At the time of filing this article, there is more bad news for the opponents of Dr. Yunus in Bangladesh. Wall Street Journal has just named him as one of the top influential economists/business thinkers together with Joseph Stiglitz, Bill Gates,  Michael Porter, Thomas Friedman, Eric Schmidt, Richard Branson, Malcolm Gladwell,  Robert Reich, Jack Welch, Niall Ferguson, Michael Dell, Howard Gardner an Jimmy Wales. Perhaps those opposing and humiliating him will now spare a moment and think whether a man in such h21qcompany can be the same man they are hounding.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


For  an “inclusive” national election
M. Serajul Islam

These days, those who think of the country and in which direction it is going are concerned about the next national election in a manner they have never been with any of the past national elections. It is now a matter of a few months that the Awami League would complete its five year term and the country would have a new government through national election. What is supposed to be a normal democratic exercise is shaping to be anything but normal as the time nears for the voters to exercise their democratic and sovereign right to elect a new government of their choice. The two mainstream parties, the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are fighting over the way the national election would be held. The Awami League wants the national election to be held under an interim government to be headed by the incumbent Prime Minister. The BNP is convinced and afraid that such a national election would be fraught with interference by the ruling party and it would be futile to participate in such an election. It therefore insists that the next national election should be held under the Caretaker Government (CG) system for it to be free, fair and transparent. The fight, unless resolved, has all the potentials to send Bangladesh towards political disaster it has never faced since the country became independent.

The Awami League has already amended the Constitution (15th amendment) using its 3/4th majority in parliament to conduct the next national election under the interim government. In amending the Constitution, the AL ignored the High Court ruling that had recommended that the next 2 national elections should be held under the CG system before the system is scrapped. The High Court was of the opinion that due to the conflicting nature of politics, it would be in the interest of the country to do so before holding national elections under elected government. The AL’s only argument for annulling the CG system is that unelected government cannot hold democratic elections or establish democratic governments. It did not care to explain why CG system was introduced in Bangladesh; its own role and reasons for demanding the CG system; the results the CG system brought for the country and whether it (the present AL Government) can be considered a legal and/or democratic government t having been elected by the system that it considers cannot elect a democratic/legal government.  The way the bill for annulment of the CG system and its replacement for elections under the interim government was hurried through the parliament (it took a few hours to do so where all who were present were from the ruling party as the opposition had boycotted it) left many in doubt about the wisdom and intent of the ruling party regarding the next national election.

The BNP rejected the 15th amendment outright. They argued that the Awami League used the High Court to serve its political ends; that it used one part of Court’s decision and annulled the CG system but ignored the other part by refusing to hold the next two national elections under the CG system. The BNP had other strong arguments against the politically motivated nature of the annulment of the CG system. The BNP argued that the Awami League will not hold a free and fair election if those elections were to be conducted by an interim government headed by Sheikh Hasina. In making this argument, the BNP did not say anything new in the politics of the country. It simply argued what the AL had argued in 1991-96. At that time the AL had argued that it could not trust free and fair elections under an interim government headed by the BNP and that for national elections to be free, fair, transparent and democratic, the country needed to have a CG system. The AL had taken to the streets and had made hartal a major strategy to force the BNP to accept its demand. In fact, in that period, the AL had called over 170 days of hartal during which the damages and destruction were widespread. The AL also boycotted the parliament at that time to force the BNP to introduce the CG system.

The BNP also argued that under the present AL government, the administration has been politicized in a major way and the law enforcing agencies have also been like wise politicized; two structures crucial to hold a free and fair national election. When the AL had pressured the BNP for introducing the CG system, the bureaucracy and the law enforcing agencies had not been as politicized as it has been at present. At least, the AL did not accuse the BNP Government then the way the BNP is making the point of politicization against the AL government now. The BNP also has a major issue over the Election Commission that would be expected to ensure the fairness and freeness of the national elections under an interim government to be headed by Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister. It did not participate in the process the Election Commission was chosen in which late President Ziaur Rahman had played a significant role although because it doubted how much independence he had in freely choosing the EC outside the dictates of the ruling party.

The AL has made a strong case based on the way the Election Commission has conducted the local government elections to reject the BNP’s demand for restoration of the CG system. The AL has strengthened this contention more forcefully after the recent elections in the four city corporations in which it lost badly to the BNP backed candidates. In the local elections held before these 4 elections too, the BNP had fared much better than the AL. The AL has stated that as it has held free and fair local government elections and lost in most of these elections; the BNP has no reason to feel that national election under it would be any different. The BNP has not been convinced by this line of argument. It has claimed that local government elections and national elections are in different league and that in 1991-96, the AL had won important city elections in Dhaka and Chittagong but that did not encourage it at all to accept that the BNP was capable of conducting such free and fair elections at the national level. Thus in continuing to demand the CG system for national election, the BNP is arguing its case exactly as  the AL had done in 1991-96.

The arguments of the two parties for and against the CG system notwithstanding, the local government elections and national elections are in reality not in the same league. To argue that because the local elections have been free and fair under the present government and the EC, the national election would also be likewise is not correct for a number of reasons. For one, the stakes in the two elections are polar opposites. The stakes for the ruling party to interfere and turn the results in its favour in local governments are negligible. Victory in local elections does not give a national party the power to govern; the power to do pretty much what it likes. The way politics has evolved in Bangladesh, being in the government gives immense powers to the Prime Minister, the Ministers or others in elected positions. It also to those who are members of the ruling party and its various affiliated wings power to act like the government and use its powers for personal benefits. In their direct and indirect involvement, these ruling party members not just exercise unlimited and unbridled power; they also make huge sums of money, a lot of it in ill gotten ways. In fact, the system that Bangladesh now has is an adulterated version of the US spoils system that has been deliberately allowed to go berserk.

There is another very important stake that the AL has in national elections; one that is very crucial to its motivation in winning it. Victory in the next  national election is not just a return for it to office to continue to enjoy the perks of power and the immense benefits that go with it; it is also an insurance against threat of harassment, persecution and spending time in jail in case it loses it. In the AL’s current term in office, the BNP leaders have faced harassment, persecution and time in jail in ways no opposition party leaders in Bangladesh’s political history have. In addition, BNP leaders have also been taken on remand and tortured, something that has never been done to opposition political leaders in the past. The AL’s motivation to return to power is thus a strong one; it fears the same fate would befall its leaders if the BNP comes to power.  As for the  BNP, it  has another strong motivation to stick to its demand for the CG system. All cases of corruption that were filed against the AL by the last CG/military government were withdrawn when the AL assumed power. These cases were in thousands. Not one case against the BNP also in thousands has been withdrawn while many hundreds more have been filed against them by the AL Government. The BNP needs to have a fair chance of winning the next national election in order to save its members from being harassed and prosecuted on charges of corruption, majority of which are politically motivated.

The AL has argued that as power under a CG system would be in the hands of unelected people, elections under it would be un-democratic. In making this argument, the AL has ignored the fact that the only free and fair national elections in Bangladesh have been held under the CG system; four in all where each  parliament/government has completed its full five years in office. Those held under the system that the AL now wants have been rigged where the party in power has blatantly interfered in ensuring the outcome in its favour. Thus unelected people have favoured and sustained democracy better than have elected people. Further, despite its strong views that government elected through the CG system cannot be democratic; it has been silent about the fact that it was elected under such a system that was made even less acceptable by that CG being under the grip of the extra-constitutional forces, the military.  Further, there is nowhere in any manual of democracy that says that only elected people can hold democratic elections. In most democracies, elections are held by independent commissions and institutions who are all unelected individuals where  elected governments under which such elections are held have no power over election officials.

Democracy is a dynamic concept that is changing and developing all the time. Democracy in the context of the state in most general terms rests on two fundamental pillars. The first is the rule of law and the second is the right of the people to choose their government by free, fair and transparent election based on universal adult franchise. Within these two pillars, functioning democracies have resolved their concerns about undue interference in elections by the government conducting it by establishing electoral laws and electoral commissions comprising unelected people. They wasted no time or energy worrying whether elected or unelected people conduct elections because they have no fear that any force in the country, be it the ruling party or the government conducting and favouring the ruling party can in anyway interfere with election. In Bangladesh unfortunately, elections under party government have historically not been fair or transparent. Ruling parties have blatantly used powers of the government to interfere and turn election results in their favour because of the poor state of the rule of law and the absence of credible election commission.  In fact, that was the reason why the AL had demanded the CG system. That situation has worsened today.  Countries in similar situation as Bangladesh that fear government influence of the ruling party in national elections have looked at the CG system that Bangladesh developed and then annulled with positive interest. Pakistan just successfully conducted its national election under the CG system and Nepal is getting ready for its national elections under such a system. Believe it or not, the country that gave birth to democracy, Greece, has held national elections on June 17th under the CG system where the Head of the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court was the head of the caretaker administration!

Thus the BNP is arguing for the same that the AL had argued in 1991-96; a level playing field for free, fair and transparent national election that only the CG system can ensure. Only, the developments in politics and the BNP’s predicament in the last five years have lent a great deal more justification to the demand for the restoration of the CG system than when the AL had demanded for its acceptance in the constitution in 1991-96. Public opinion in the country also favours the CG system for the next national election as the only way to bring the country back on the rails. A poll recently conducted by Prothom Alo has shown that 90% of the people want the next national election to be held under the CG system. The result of this poll has been accepted by everybody except the activists of the ruling party. All electronic polls conducted by newspapers have favoured the CG system by the same margin as has all public opinion polls conducted by the TV stations.    

Friends of Bangladesh have avoided getting involved in the controversy over the CG system. They have instead suggested that Bangladesh must have, in the words of the Canadian High Commissioner Heather Cruden, “free, fair, transparent “and “inclusive” national election for political stability and its future. Before her, the US Under-Secretary Wendy Sherman and the British Minister who visited Bangladesh recently had also suggested “inclusive “national election. In other words, they have all been unequivocal that the BNP must participate in the next national election.  The Canadian High Commissioner has asked the AL to show the political will to amend the Constitution to hold the “inclusive” national election. Today, the BNP is no less acceptable in public perception than the AL and perhaps more so after winning the city corporation elections that were fought on national issues by big margins. Therefore simple common sense should lead to the simple conclusion that the next national election in Bangladesh will not be free, fair, transparent or legitimate if the BNP boycotted it.

Thus the ball is now in the court of the Awami League to take Bangladesh away from disaster over the issue of holding the next general election. As far as the people are concerned, they do not want their choice of the next government to be restricted to vote just for the AL that would turn the national election into rubber stamping it back to power. Without “inclusive” national election, the issue would be not whether Bangladesh would have a democratic election or not for such an election would be undemocratic if not “inclusive” by any definition as well as lose its legitimacy. More ominously, the issue would be whether Bangladesh would survive as a nation without “inclusive” national election for the dangers of not holding “inclusive” national election are too nightmarish even to conjecture.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Gazipur City Corporation Election: A shape of things to come
M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister herself intervened in the Gazipur City Corporation (GCC) election to force Jahangir Alam out of the race amidst great drama and cries from the BNP that the local government electoral laws were violated. This act alone left little doubt how serious the ruling party was to win the GCC election to convince itself and the nation that its popularity was not nose diving as many thought it was after the candidates the party backed lost badly in the four city corporation elections held on June the 15th.  Senior Ministers, national party leaders and 57 ruling party MPs went to Gazipur to help out Azmatullah Khan.  They went there despite the fact that Gazipur is an AL citadel from where it won all five parliamentary seats in 2008 and all four in 1996. To the AL, Gazipur is second only to Gopalgang.   Thus all analysis in the media leading to the GCC election had predicted that Gazipur would be different from elections in Barisal, Khulna, Rajshahi and Sylhet.

In fact, in the final days leading to the polls, these analyses even favoured Azmat Khan because of the way the ruling party backed his candidature. News that the BNP candidate had been involved in corruption as a former State Minister for Religious Affairs and that the NBR would freeze his personal accounts also encouraged many to think that the GCC election would not turn out the same way as those held on June 15th. Additionally, as candidates, the AL backed candidate was more presentable than his opponent. Azmat had been in office as the Mayor of Tongi that was amalgamated to form the new Gazipur City Corporation for 3 terms and there was no accusation against him of issue of corruption. Like the four AL backed candidates who lost last month, Azmatullah Khan too was a candidate who should have won easily and convincingly under normal circumstances.

But neither the 4 city corporation elections nor the GCC election were in any way normal local government elections. There were very little local factors in these elections and almost everything national. The electoral laws for local government elections prohibit national political parties to participate in these elections. Candidates participate in local elections on individual basis and cannot use symbols of the national political parties. The reason is to keep local elections completely out of the influence and purview of national elections and national political parties. The laws notwithstanding, national parties and national political leaders have customarily come in aid of candidates in important local government elections. Doing so when the candidates do not use party symbols or where the national parties do not use the party structure and organization for aiding candidates at local elections are accepted within the purview of laws guiding local elections. 

However what has happened with the 5 city corporations were different from what the country has seen in past local government elections. In the June 15th elections, there was clear violation of the spirit with which the local government laws have been written and perhaps a little of the laws as well. In case of the GCC election, there was clear violation of the laws while the spirit was simply sacrificed by the way side. In Barisal, Khulna, Sylhet and Rajshahi, both the ruling party and the BNP involved themselves as they would if these were national elections. With national election round the corner and the controversy over it between the two mainstream parties about the manner it would be held unresolved, the BNP and the AL used the 4 city corporation elections to test out people’s support for their parties and their causes. The AL went national over the 4 city corporation polls to prove that free, fair and transparent elections could be held under it and to use that to convince the nation that there was no need for the caretaker system for national election. The AL was confident that with good candidates who were contesting as sitting mayors, they would win these elections. By fighting these elections over national issues, it was also confident that the victories would establish its popularity nationwide. Most importantly however, the AL felt that by allowing the elections to be free and fair, it would be able to convince the nation that the BNP’s demand for the CTG was unwarranted.  

The BNP leaders went to aid the candidates their party had backed to highlight to the nation the failures of the government, in particular draw the nation’s attention to the corruption over the Padma Bridge, scams in the share market, Hallmark and Destiny, rising prices of essentials; lawlessness of the Chatra League and the Jubo league and the deterioration of the law and order situation in the country. The BNP saw in these elections the opportunity to flag for the nation its charges against the ruling party that it missed by staying away from the parliament. The BNP used the Barisal, Sylhet, Khulna and Rajshahi elections to their heart’s content against the AL on national issues where it thought it could catch the ruling party in a sticky wicket. In campaigning, the BNP thus put forward its demand for the CTG as a core issue.

The BNP, buoyed with the 4 victories that it claimed rejected of the AL nationally over its failure in governance and support for the CTG, entered the GCC to use a victory there as another nail in the AL coffin, a much more important one than the previous 4 it had won because of Gazipur’s acceptance nationally as an AL citadel. On back foot, the AL went to the GCC to establish that its popularity was not on decline and what happened on June 15th was due to the failure of the candidates and the local leadership who “had lost contact with the people.”  It was confident of victory in Gazipur but also made sure that all was done for that victory, short of interfering in the election directly. All government officials chosen for purpose of the election that numbered a few thousand were chosen carefully raising doubts in many minds and most of all in the opposition’s that there would be interference to change the results for the ruling party candidate. That did not happen because the AL wanted to hold the elections without interfering so that it could claim that national election could also be held under party government. However,   the way the polling officials were chosen left many wondering whether this was a dress rehearsal for the general election. Many wondered also that the AL allowed free and fair election to convince the nation to reject the BNP’s demand for the CTG.

The media ensured that even the little bit of local flavor in these elections vanished and that these elections turned into direct battles between the AL and the BNP for the hearts and minds of the people with the next national election in perspective. In fact, the GCC election was painted in the media, both print and electronic, as a de facto national election, a test of the popularity or the lack of it of the ruling party and the opposition. Thus, after the humiliating defeat in GCC, even the AL national leaders have grudgingly acknowledged that the elections reflected the party’s declining popularity and alarming bells for the national election. Even the ruling party’s claim that the elections rejected the CTG, a sort of consolation prize for it from the devastating defeats, did not seem to be a forceful one. The claim became even weaker against the BNP’s strong claim that that by returning its candidates convincingly, the city corporation elections established unequivocally  a national support for the CTG, a view that most people outside the AL’s inner circle supported before the elections and now more convinced to be the need of the hour for the country.

AL’s current predicament has been acknowledged by the ruling party itself. Senior leader Obaidul Qader has said that the defeats are clear signs that the ruling party has distanced itself from the people by the arrogance of it leaders, etc. A mood of despondency has taken over the party. Its trademark of defiance and arrogance against criticism and righteousness on all issues amidst clear indications to the contrary has been missing in its reaction to the defeats. Senior leader Tofael Ahmed seemed clearly at a loss to articulate any encouraging words to explain the defeats. Frustrated, he said the AL’s predicament is indeed one of being “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. He said had the AL won the elections, BNP would have cried that the elections have been foul and now that it has lost, the BNP is not giving it any credit for holding free and fair elections.

The media that has been a strong backer of the ruling party and an equally harsh critic of the BNP has expressed damning views of the ruling party for the defeats. If their views could be paraphrased, these were those that the BNP would have liked to express. A leading English daily newspaper has suddenly changed its stance from being a net advocate of the ruling party to that of a net critic. Individuals known as AL sympathizers have on talk shows and newspaper columns blamed the arrogance of the ruling party for the debacles. They seemed more frustrated and disappointed at the AL predicament and some even mustered the courage to point fingers at the Prime Minister. There has been a definite change in the media’s stance after the city corporation elections. The media has concluded that the AL’s current predicament is precarious not because of anything the BNP has done but because of the way the AL led government has failed in almost all aspects of governance. The media also   underlined the fact that the AL’s fortunes are slipping faster than it can recover before the fast approaching national election. Unfortunately for the all   issues that the it thought it had successfully slipped under the carpet – Padma, Hallmark, Destiny, share market, Hefazat, etc, etc – came back to haunt the AL in Barisal, Khulna, Rajshahi, Sylhet and finally at Gazipur.

The reality of politics in Bangladesh was factored into local elections and blatantly visible in the GCC election in another way that the media generally failed to note. The secular AL candidate had more men with beards (the fundamentalists wear) around him than the BNP backed candidate in blatant violation of the party’s secular commitment of not using Islam in politics. Azmat in fact claimed Hefazat was supporting him! In contrast, no from the party’s secular cultural front went to Gazipur who, had Shahabag movement not occurred in our politics, would no doubt have been there for Azmat to help him over the victory line. Sadly, the Shahabag youth movement was seen fragmented into three groups gathering in small numbers crying foul against the BNP backed candidate with no one listening! The joker in the pack, former President HM Ershad may have played the best hand in GCC. After ensuring his party did everything for the BNP backed candidate, he gave support for the Azmat hours before the election. Everyone knows why. He did the proverbial act; killed the snake but also saved the stick! One hopes for his sake, the ruling party does not see it this way!

The city corporation elections have however left the critical issue of the CTG that is crucial to the political stability of the country, unresolved. However, the manner in which the elections were fought and the way the ruling party lost, the moral victory over the CTG issue has been decidedly won by the BNP. The country has moved closer to a consensus on CTG. The AL should now  reflect on the defeats and  discuss the issue with the BNP for the sake of the country. A BNP on an upswing now cannot now be forced into submission for the AL would now has its hands considerably weakened by the 5-0 defeat handed to it at the city corporation polls.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Awami League, election arithmetic and caretaker government
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League is insisting that the election must be held under an interim administration with Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister. The BNP is adamant that the national election must be held under `         the non-party Caretaker Government system.  The two parties are moving further and further away on the issue of finding a way to reach an agreement on how to hold the next general election where both can participate. Meanwhile, increasingly the ability of the Awami League to agree to a national election under the CG system is going out of its hands because of simple arithmetic of electioneering. The numbers are adding up against it to make it difficult if not impossible for the Awami League to agree to hold the next national election in a manner that would allow the BNP to participate.

Take for instance, the recent press conference of the 9 women Directors of Grameen Bank held after the news came out in the media that the Government was about to break up the Noble Prize winning institution into a number of  parts and bring it under its absolute control. Obviously these democratically elected Directors with links at the grass roots were upset over the Government’s attempt to break the GB. They expressed determination that they would not allow it. One of the Directors reminded the government that the GB has 8.4 million women and they all have families. They warned the Government that unless it gave up its decision to “grab” the GB, the ruling party would have the 8.4 million subscribers of GB and their families against them in the forthcoming national election.

That number is substantial and enough to make a major impact against the ruling party. However, the GB subscribers and their families are not the only people unhappy with the ruling party. The supporters of the Hefazatul Islam are another large chunk of voters who are unhappy with the Awami League. Although no exact number is available as to how many Hefazat supporters are voters, the number of people they brought to Dhaka on April 4 and May 5 was huge. In fact, some newspapers reported that for their April 4th gathering in Dhaka, the Hefazat  had brought 1.5 million people and that too after the Government had made all out efforts to stop Hefazat supporters from coming to Dhaka. The Government had stopped buses, trains and launches to discourage the Hefazat supporters from gathering in Dhaka.

The Hefazat supporters are Islamic fundamentalists. Unlike the Jamat however, the Hefazatul Islam is not a political party or involved in politics. In the past, many of them have never bothered to vote in any election, be it national or local. That situation has changed. The non-political Hefazatul  Islam has been brought to the centre of national politics, first,  by the anti-Islamic activities of some of the youth leaders of the Shahabag movement  and later by the way they were treated by the law enforcing forces to disperse them from the Shapla Chattar on the night of  May 5-6. The Hefazat believes that a large number of their supporters were killed by the law enforcing agencies at the Shapla Chattar on the night of May 5-6. The Government has strongly denied the accusation on the number. A government press note issued many days after the incident stated that some Hefazat men were killed that night.

 Although the Government has won the first round by successfully dispersing the serious threat that the Hefazat had posed to it leading to May 5-6, the problem has not been resolved at all to the benefit of the ruling party.  The action by the law enforcing agencies has transformed a huge section of the people into anti Awami League voters, people who would normally not have voted for they do not support any of the mainstream parties. There is little doubt now that in the next national election, these Hefazat supporters would not just vote but vote with a vengeance against the ruling party. They showed this mood in the 4 city corporation elections which the ruling party supported candidates lost to the BNP supported candidates by big margins. The ruling party, setting its commitment to secularism and use of religion in politics by the way side, openly and unabashedly flirted with not just Hefazat but also fundamentalist forces to secure votes. ( In the ensuing Gazipur election, the ruling party backed candidate  “proudly” moved around with bearded and capped supporters to give voters the impression that the Hefazat and Islamic fundamentalists elements were backing him!!)

Earlier, the ruling party messed up its electoral fortunes by the insensitive way it handled the share market scam. After it came to power, it allowed the share market to be a place for the fortune hunters. Huge number of people of all political affiliations, many with no political affiliations, was drawn to the share market. Among these, a good number was the projonmo who had also been instrumental in bringing the AL to office lured by the party’s promise of change.  They all became victims of the share market scam through which few people with close connection to the ruling party skimmed thousands of crores of Takas and not one of them has either been apprehended or punished.  The government, instead of sympathizing with the victims, many of whom lost all the money they had, was totally insensitive to their predicament and senior Minister made fun of their plight! According to political analysts, the number of victims of the share market scam and their families would be in many millions who would have every reason to be upset with the ruling party. 

The combined votes of the Grameen Bank, the Hefazatul Islam and the share market scam victims will be, even by conservative estimate, huge.   The AL for reasons that only it can explain has given this huge number of voters every reason to vote against it in a national election. If the votes of these groups are added to those of the BNP in case it participates in the national election, then by the simplest of arithmetic the chances of the ruling party of returning to power would vanish. That is not the end of the AL’s concerns. Stacked against it in the next general election would also be other damaging issues of interest to voters. These issue are the corruption over the Padma Bridge; the Hallmark and the Destiny scams through which few politically connected individuals have defrauded public financial institutions of thousands of crores of Takas; corruption by the political leadership; unacceptable law and order condition and hike of price of essentials in the country and misdeeds of the affiliated organizations of the ruling party led by its student wing, the Chatra League.

Thus the AL, because of the factors noted, has little incentive to accede to the demand of the BNP for the Caretaker Government.  Unfortunately for the ruling party,  these factors are not all to worry it and discourage it  to hold a national election with the BNP in the race. In the last five years, it has treated the BNP leaders in a manner no opposition party has been treated in the history of Bangladesh. It is not that they have been harassed and persecuted on the flimsiest of grounds; some of the BNP leaders have been placed on remand and subjected to torture. In fact, many of BNP leaders have been treated like common criminals. The AL thus cannot even think of the consequences it would face if it lost power to the BNP.

Nevertheless, there has to be a way out because the AL cannot hope to hold an election without the BNP to return to power and remain there. The forces against it would be too formidable to suppress by use of force. Again, arithmetic will stand against the AL’s chances of succeeding in remaining in power should it decide to go ahead with next national election by keeping the BNP/Jamat out of the race. It is true that public reaction was against the attempt by the BNP and the Jamat to bring down the present AL led government by hartal and violence. The people did not support that because they felt that they had elected the AL to power and therefore they saw no reason to force it out of power before it completed its term.

That public support will be gone if the AL came back to power without the participation of the BNP/Jamat and the two started a movement to dislodge that AL Government by force as they certainly will. Public reaction to such a movement will not be negative because that government will not have legitimacy. Nevertheless, if politics goes to that extent, the nation will suffer consequences and the country will be pushed back many steps in its efforts to transform the country from low income to middle income, something that the AL has promised the nation.

 It is not simple arithmetic that should bring the AL to its senses; it should also see the way its own supporters in the media and the civil society are trying their best to bring it to face reality. A leading daily generally critical of the opposition recently conducted an opinion poll that showed 90% of the people supported the CG system.  A columnist known for his pro-ruling party sympathies has recently written an article in the same paper in which he has suggested strongly to the AL to accept the CG system stating that it will need the system badly when it faces the BNP as the ruling party in the election after the next one that he thinks will be won by the BNP. An English daily that has consistently flogged the opposition has written an unbelievably hard hitting editorial column about the AL that it should read to get a hold on reality.  

No election is won or lost till the final results are announced. Thus despite the reality of arithmetic that points against an AL win in an “inclusive” national election, the ruling party can still make a fight if it reads the writings on the wall and takes lessons from its mistakes in the months remaining till the national election. The AL should consider that the BNP has done little meantime to advance towards a winning position and the chances that arithmetic is  giving it of winning are all due to the mistakes it has made and continuing to make. Towards giving it a chance of winning the next election, the first step that the AL should take is to start talking with the BNP so that it can give the country a national election that would allow all parties to participate. This is not just a democratic move that the AL should make if of course it wants the people to believe its loudly touted democratic credentials; it is also a responsibility from which it cannot shy away because this is the responsibility that it owes to itself by being in the government.

If the AL moves towards ensuring an “inclusive” national election, then the compulsions of arithmetic that currently appear to be stacked against it for the next general election could level out substantially. The fear and suspicion in the public mind that the AL may  be  conspiring to return to power without having to fight the BNP will vanish   and the people would then be able to make a choice between the two mainstream parties. Anything to the contrary would push the country towards civil strife that many fears could even turn into a civil war and the consequences of that would be dangerous and disastrous for all. If the country deteriorates towards that, the responsibility for pushing the country there would rest on the shoulder of the ruling party for restricting the people’s choice in exercising their sovereign right to vote and elect their government of choice.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

On two-nation theory and Bangladesh
M. Serajul Islam

In the first week and a little more of the Shahabag movement, when the youth led uprising was promising to take the country to a new and better level of well being, there was enthusiasm in some quarters in Bangladesh and in interested circles in next door India that Bangladesh was finally putting its act together towards becoming a truly secular country. Those active in these discussions in Bangladesh are the leaders of the country’s secular movement who believe and want the rest of the country to believe that the main reason why so many lives were sacrificed in 1971 was to establish Bangladesh as a secular country where religion (meaning Islam, the religion of the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis) will have no role in public affairs and politics.

The activists of the secular movement in Bangladesh argue that the two-nation theory that used religion to create  in 1947 a Hindu majority India and a Muslim majority Pakistan (of which Bangladesh was a part)  has been rejected in 1971 when Bangladesh emerged as an independent country based on secularism. The leaders of the secular movement in Bangladesh, who were unhappy that even after the 15th amendment the country still had both the provisions of Islam as a state religion and “Bismillah” in the Constitution, were excited about Shahabag. The saw an opportunity in the Shahabag movement for their secular agenda, particularly in forcing the government to delete the Islamic provisions from the Constitution. They described Shahabag as the beginning of the new liberation war to finish the unfinished 1971 war of liberation whose objective is to reject the two-nation theory and establish Bangladesh as a sovereign country where religion would have no significance in the lives of its people except in private. 

This view that 1971 war of liberation of Bangladesh rejected the two nation theory has been supported whole heartedly in India because it never accepted the 1947 partition of India.  It was therefore no surprise that India was the only country to give the Shahabag Movement its blessings. Breaking protocol and diplomatic niceties, the Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid personally visited Shahabag while on an official visit to Bangladesh and gave it  his Government’s blessings at a time when the movement had started to become  overtly pro-ruling party and equally overtly anti-BNP. The Indian President on his state visit to Dhaka early in March said his heart was with the Shahabag youth and he felt sad he was unable to be there personally.

The move from Shahabag to fight and win the second liberation war to complete the unfinished task of 1971 for establishing secularism so that it is not tarnished by Islam faltered when the anti-Islamic blogs became public knowledge resulting in widespread public anger. The result was the Hefazat phenomenon where many times more people than the Shahabag youth could muster gathered in Shapla Chattar, condemning and demanding hanging of the anti-Islam bloggers. The way the authorities tackled the Hefazat phenomenon is still not clear with the government’s claim that it fizzled without serious bloodshed contested by the opposition that claimed hundreds of Hefazat men were massacred to drive them away from Dhaka. Nevertheless, the Hefazat reaction to the Shahabag underscored the fact that those who had thought that Islam could be contained in the four walls of people’s homes did not understand the extent and depth of people’ attachment to the religion in Bangladesh.

The government was the first to fear the Hefazat uprising after it had seen the huge gathering of Hefazat followers in Dhaka on April 4th.. Government Ministers held meetings with Hefazat and assured them that the government would consider their 13 point demands although there were elements in the demands that the ruling party with its secular stance on politics should have rejected outright. Although there was widespread concern and fear in the minds of the majority of the people of the country to see so many Islamic fundamentalist gather in Dhaka, there was nevertheless also a feeling among them that the youth in Shahabag had gone too far with their attitude towards Islam. The people in general did not believe that the youth in Shahabag were either atheist or against Islam but nevertheless they felt that the Shahabag youth did not show Islam the respect that they expected. They suspected that behind the youth leaders in Shahabag, there were a few well know “secularists” who tried to use the movement that otherwise had so much potential to serve their agenda of secularism against Islam. 

The debate between secularism versus Islam has been played out between the Shahabag Movement and the Hefazat phenomenon in a manner that should give the nation its sense of direction for the future. The people have cast their support unequivocally in favour of Islam by the way the Shahabag movement withered away. Nevertheless, it is not fundamentalist Islam that the people have supported. They have supported the Islam that has been tampered by many liberal influences including Sufism, language, culture and tradition. In fact, while the debate raged in the country between secularism and Islam, the majority of the Muslims of the country did not for a moment lend  their support for those who tried to use the opportunities offered to them by the anti-islam bloggers  for the fundamentalist brand of Islam. They clearly rejected Jamat and Hefazat for the politics they represented although they had their moral support for the Hefazat’s demand for punishment for those who humiliated Islam.

The people did in no way reject secularism either but not the secularism preached by those who do not see any place for Islam in public life of a secular Bangladesh. The people supported the secularism envisioned by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who had many times, both before emergence of Bangladesh and afterwards, said publicly that our national identity is in being both a “Mussalman” and a “Bangali.” He saw no conflict   between the two entities common in the lives of 90% of the people of Bangladesh for a secular Bangladesh where all religions would have equal rights.  The secular movement leaders unfortunately saw a fundamental conflict between the two and tried to use the Shahabag Movement to fight a new liberation war for a secular Bangladesh to subordinate the “Mussalman” entity from all public and political matters. Ironically, it is the failure of the Shahabag Movement that has established the “Mussalman” element of the national identity of a Bangladeshi in full strength.

The developments in Bangladesh’s  politics since February have unmistakably and indisputably established the “Mussalman” element of the national identity of its people that has forcefully destroyed  the notion that  the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 has rejected  the two-nation theory.  Pakistan gave the people of Bangladesh space for fulfillment of the religious element of their national identity but none for fulfillment of their linguistic, cultural and liberal identities that Bangabandhu had aptly described as the “Bangali” identities. In 1971, the people of Bangladesh achieved these elements to complete the process of achieving their national identity of being both a “Mussalman” (1947) and “Bangali” (1971). It is time the secularists take lessons so that Bangladesh can return from the abyss to which they had pushed the country by their attempt to undermine the Islamic basis of the country’s national identity.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador